All posts by Charles

What the hell is nature?

If you ask someone on the street, perhaps in the style of Jimmy Kimmel, “what is nature?”, you’ll get a variety of answers. Nature is the Earth. Nature is plants and animals. Nature is the biosphere. Simple enough, right?

Wrong – apparently. In the short article “Twenty-Two Theses on Nature,” Steven Shaviro examines nature in terms of energetics, informatics, spacetime, sentience, causality, and minimizing anthropocentrism. Not things you would often see on Jimmy Kimmel.

Some of the theses are easy to read and understand, but as they progress they get more and more mystifying. Theses 1-3 are very agreeable: nature can change, humans are natural. It seems like we often forget those two things, especially that nature is constantly changing. When we work against climate change, or against invasive species, it isn’t because we want nature to be preserved in some mythologized unblemished state, it’s because we want the world to be a better home for us. We don’t want crops to be destroyed by invasive species, often aided by climate change, or climate change worsened storms and droughts to wreak havoc. This havoc is disorder, or an increase in entropy, which is the direction the universe is heading in. Interestingly, thesis 13 says that complex systems like storms or Jimmy Kimmel Live do create more order in the short term, but they comply with entropy by creating more disorder in the long term.

Shaviro casts a wide net over what nature actually is. In thesis 4, nature is “all-encompassing,” and that we could go far into space and “never find an edge or a boundary.” In thesis 5, nature is “radically open” in time and space. When I initially read this, I protested the definition, but perhaps it fits. If nature includes landscapes, along with plants and animals, why not include the whole universe?

Let’s Start our Twelve Step Program

“So the world will be a degree or two warmer, who cares? I like the summer warm.”

The fight against climate change has stalled. Jimmy Carter installed solar panels on the White House. Reagan tore them down. Nixon created the EPA. Now the head of the EPA is a coal lobbyist. Oil companies fund politicians and propaganda machines, and the opinion I opened with is not an uncommon one.

Relatively recently, activists have changed terms from “Global Warming” to “Climate Change.” Because the issue isn’t a couple degrees of warming or even the glaciers melting, the issue is about that warming’s far reaching effects on the system that is the Earth. Scientists warn us about more turbulent storms, ocean acidification, less productive agriculture, and as “The Tamarisk Hunter” is written about, larger droughts.

“The Tamarisk Hunter” is a short story by Paolo Bacigalupi, published in the collection “I’m With The Bears: Short Stories From a Damaged Planet.” From the introduction of the book, a sentiment that resonated with me: “The scientists have done their job … Now it’s time for the rest of us–for the economists, the psychologists, the theologians. And the artists, whose role is to help us understand what things feel like.”

Part of what makes “The Tamarisk Hunter” a great story is the feeling that this really could happen. In the story, the US is in a postapocalyptic state, with the seemingly sovereign California controlling all of the water of the Colorado river. Our main character Lolo works uprooting tamarisk, a water hungry plant, which California has put a water bounty on. In the present day, there are already water issues with the Colorado river. It used to flow all the way to Mexico, but now it is diverted to California agriculture and is stored behind a dam.

The events of the story show us a possible future we need to work to avoid. Droughts and water shortages will be created and worsened by climate change. And people who are paying attention know that. That’s why George Bush’s family bought 300,000 acres on the world’s largest aquifer. It’s an investment.

Sources:

Reagan removed White House solar panels

Fossil fuel funds propaganda

Coal lobbyist leads EPA

Colorado river no longer reaches Mexico

Bush family investing in aquifer

Looking in the mirror

Standing by your values in times of adversity is one of our most treasured virtues. Standing up to bullies that are more powerful than you. Being generous when you don’t have much of your own. Speaking out when you see something unjust.

Well, the Norse who colonized Greenland stood by their values in times of adversity. And due to it, they starved. Despite many efforts, archaeologists have been unable to find any appreciable amount of fish bones in the Norse colonies. The Norse starved before they would eat fish. 

Geography Professor Jared Diamond details this in his book, “Collapse.” We usually assume societies are destroyed by outside factors, but the Norse colony in Greenland can tell a different story.

They chopped down all of their forests, leading to massive erosion. They insisted on keeping cows, even though they were very resource intensive. Every house they built needed acres of soil harvested to insulate. They sent their boats to hunt walrus for ivory, rather than fish for food. In the end, Greenland’s soil, Greenland’s ecosystem couldn’t handle the demand, and the Norse wouldn’t adapt.

Malcolm Gladwell’s book review of “Collapse” is chilling. “The Norse ate their cattle down to the hoofs, and they found the bones of dogs covered with knife marks, meaning that, in the end, they had to eat their pets. But not fish bones, of course. Right up until they starved to death, the Norse never lost sight of what they stood for.”

It’s hard to not compare our current struggle with climate change with the Norse of Greenland who died out a century ago. I wonder if there were Norse who saw what was happening, and tried to stop it? Where there Norse proto-environmentalists protesting against the wealthy farmers who clung to their cows as symbols of their wealth? Norse who tried to change their ways? Were they ridiculed? Did any survive among the Inuit?

Scale

“Glass,” from Chris Jordan’s series “Intolerable Beauty: Portraits of American Mass Consumption.”

Photographer Chris Jordan uses art to draw attention to mass consumption in our society. Global statistics about climate change are easy to read about, but hard to really comprehend. “When we actually see a physical, visual depiction of that quantity, it blows our mind every single time because we actually weren’t comprehending that number at all,” Jordan said.

Jordan’s work draws attention to environmental issues by attempting to give a sense of magnitude. Though his artwork is aesthetic, Jordan seems to use it to garner support for science. Jordan has collaborated with activists and organizations such as National Geographic on ecological projects.

Jordan’s photography helps raise awareness of climate problems, although at this point I wonder how many people are unaware. Of course, more discussion is still more discussion, and helps. 

The work does not directly lead to a call to action – it’s not as direct as something like “Ice Watch,” by Olafur Eliasson, which arranges large blocks of arctic ice in a circle representing a clock. However it conveys a message in common with “Ice Watch;” the Earth is going through big problems due to humanity.

Chris Jordan’s photography does not have a large environmental cost – the impact of his camera, and perhaps plane travel (for his “Midway” series), isn’t radically different from an average American’s footprint. If you factor in its potential to “create and generate change,” Jordan’s photography has clearly achieved carbon negativity. (A positive thing)

Justice

Most discussions about climate change, at least in my experience, are political or technological. However, I’ve learned in this class that with such a far reaching topic we should spend some time talking about the social and cultural angle.

In the “Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society,” Dr. Figueroa wrote a chapter to do exactly that, called “Indigenous People and Cultural Losses.” The effects of climate change and other ecological damages disproportionately impact groups with less societal power, enforcing the existing power dynamic. Environmental racism is the most common example of this, but there is also environmental classism, and groups that are impacted more than others. 

Dr. Figueroa talks about how indigenous communities are and will be disproportionately impacted by climate change, due to their closer relationship with nature. At the same time, indigenous people contribute little to the causes of climate change. That isn’t fair. It violates ‘distributive justice.’

Distributive justice is about how resources are allocated between people or groups, where greater costs should equal greater rewards. Wikipedia’s (sue me) example is a worker who works more hours being paid the same; this violates our sense of distributive justice. In this case indigenous groups are eating the least food at the restaurant, but they’re still picking up a big part of the bill – to give another example.

Dr. Figueroa didn’t write the chapter about distributive justice though, it’s about environmental justice, which he defines as a combination of distributive justice and recognition justice, “bridged by participatory forms of procedural justice.” I understand this as ‘fairness and recognition of past unfairness, with procedures for restorative justice.’

Restorative justice refers to a style of mediation where the victim and the offender meet (hopefully in a structured way) to decide how to move forward. It’s popularly talked about as a method for criminal justice reform.

With climate change being an extinction level event for many indigenous cultures, (the highest point in the Maldives is <8 ft over sea level) global society will need a good framework of justice to deal with climate refugees fleeing rising seas.

What can we do?

Some writing starts with an argument, and follows with the author convincing the reader how right they are. “Lexicon for an Anthropocene Yet Unseen” doesn’t do this. It reads more like a newspaper article building up to a conclusive point, or a conversation aimed at increasing understanding.

Because I only read the introduction, “Sustainability,” and “Business,” and I’m not an anthropologist, I feel grossly unqualified to tease some overarching meaning from the Lexicon.

But I’ll try and do it anyway.

The Lexicon comes in a context of great change and ecological trouble already starting to affect us. As individuals it is easy to feel powerless. The introduction mirrors this, in a passage you should not be embarrassed to look up the words in: “We are faced with circumstances undeniably beyond our control, as hyposubjects rather than wielders of a putative mastery.” When we hear that just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of greenhouse gas emissions, it is natural to ask “what is my recycling going to change?”

The Lexicon has a lot in common with historian Lynn White Jr.’s view that our ecological crisis comes from something intrinsically wrong in society, specifically Western society. As evidence, I offer a single word from the Lexicon page on hyposubjects: “androleukoheteropetromodernity.”

But to get to the heart of it, the Lexicon says that our ecological problem is really a cultural, social problem. A global problem. That technology isn’t the solution. Challenges differ around the globe, just as the vocabulary to describe concepts differs. In “Sustainability,” the authors recount working with their host on a farm in Guatemala on a shared vocabulary of sustainability, translating from English to Spanish to Mam. The translation and conversation wasn’t easy.

Luckily, human history is full of examples of social problems being overcome. What can we do? We can recycle, protest, vote for politicians that will take action, compost and raise the social capital necessary for change. Sorry for the cliche, I’m just trying to be hopeful – but not complacent. 

They’re both wrong

This week we ponder the connections between Christianity and the environment, through two readings.

Lynn White claims that Christianity has set up Western culture to think nature exists for human exploitation, with man as master of nature, and that this has led to Western technological success as well as ecological misery.

Pope Francis, on the other hand, claims that the Bible shows that humans are the stewards of the Earth, using his influence as the Pope to advance the biblical cause for increased environmental mindfulness.

Both argue interesting ideas, and both are accomplished people. But they have something else in common, too – they’re both wrong.

Lynn White comes at history looking for a reason Western Europe had so much success, and he lands on Western Christianity, which was unique to Europe. What else was largely unique to Europe? Constant war. Nowhere on Earth was there such a close competition for power between so many nations, uniting to blunt a common enemy when one got too strong. In Asia, for instance, most countries were tributaries to China: they had a stable position in the world. Europe launched the age of exploration to finance their wars, and they had the best cannons because they had so much practice making them. Necessity is the mother of invention, and competing European powers had plenty of necessity with their survival on the line.

That aside, Lynn White’s argument is defeated by something the Pope brings up. In the encyclical, Pope Francis says “the same wretchedness which leads us to mistreat an animal will not be long in showing itself in our relationships with other people” (92). If exploitation of nature arises from Christianity, where does exploitation of humanity come from? Cultures all over the world have exploited people horribly, showing that exploitation is a universal human qualm. If exploitation has been a problem all over the world, I’m skeptical that non-European powers didn’t become technological leaders because they were too polite to hurt the Earth.

Pope Francis is advocating for environmentalism through the lens of the Bible and Catholicism, which I support him doing.

However what undermines Pope Francis’ point is the apparent mutability of the Bible. You can make the biblical case for anything if you look hard enough. For example, the Americans who say that same-sex marriage goes against their religion because of 1 or 2 verses that indirectly reference same-sex sex. Slavery was even justified through the Bible. So when Pope Francis claims that the Bible and Christianity are inherently and intentionally environmentalist, that is wrong as well. He’s just giving it that meaning.

What is the relationship between Christianity and the environment? Christianity is not the root cause of environmental degradation, nor it is inherently environmentalist. Christianity is a lens to view the world through, and hopefully Christians like Pope Francis can use their faith to make the world a better place.